Aug 5th 2020

James Murdoch’s resignation is the result of News Corp’s increasing shift to the right – not just on climate

by Rodney Tiffen

 

Rodney Tiffen Emeritus Professor, Department of Government and International Relations, University of Sydney

 

In happier times: Lachlan, Rupert and James Murdoch at Rupert’s marriage to Jerry Hall in 2016.

 

James Murdoch is not the most obvious candidate for editorial heroism. His route to resigning from the News Corp board because of “disagreements over certain editorial content” has been circuitous and colourful.

 

James’s first major managerial role in his father’s media empire was to run the Star satellite services and News Corp’s Asian operations in Hong Kong from 2000 to 2003. He had mixed commercial success in this period, which is best remembered for his determination to gain access to the Chinese market by currying favour with the government.

He accused Western media of painting a falsely negative portrayal of China through their focus on controversial issues such as human rights and Taiwan. In 2001, he advised Hong Kong’s democracy movement to “accept the reality of life under a strong-willed absolutist government”. In one of his dealings with China, he agreed that Murdoch’s cable channels around the world would take China’s propaganda channel CCTV9.


Read more: China proves immune to Murdoch-style regime change


In 2003, he was promoted to run BSkyB in London, where he lived for the best part of the next decade, and where he successfully expanded Murdoch’s satellite services.

He gained early notoriety with a confrontational speech at the Edinburgh International Television Festival. Here he celebrated the digital age and the dynamism of the market, and equated people who still believed in regulation with “creationists”. There was no doubt about his primary target:

To let the state enjoy a near monopoly of information is to guarantee manipulation and distortion.

Yet we have a system in which state-sponsored media – the BBC in particular – grow ever more dominant. That process has to be reversed.

It takes a particularly agile propagandist to find the Beijing regime so benign and the BBC so sinister.

James’s main aim at the time was to effect a total takeover of BSkyB, raising News Corp’s current share of 40% to 100%. The importance of BSkyB to the Murdoch empire was demonstrated by James’s boldest and most ruthless action. In 2006, the newly formed Virgin Media group was negotiating a merger with ITV. The new group’s cable operations would have the potential to provide tougher competition for BSkyB’s satellite service.

Overnight, James swooped, buying 17.9% of ITV for a cost of GBP 940 million. This made News Corp ITV’s biggest shareholder and messed up the intended deal.

News’s move was always likely to be deemed illegal, but by the time this was finally decided nearly four years later, the challenge was dead. News lost GBP 340 million pounds on its forced sale of ITV shares, but no doubt Rupert and James thought this had been a good investment to protect BSkyB’s market share.

After the 2010 election of the Cameron government in the UK, BSkyB looked to be within reach, but James was increasingly impatient with any procedural obstacle or criticism of the attempt. His mentality at the time was on show in an incident in the lead up to the election. The Independent newspaper ran a series of advertisements proclaiming its independence and urging its readers to consider their vote. One such ad ran “Rupert Murdoch won’t decide this election, you will”.

James’s response was bizarre. He and Rebekah Brooks arrived unannounced at the paper, and James yelled at the editor, Simon Kelner, in front of bemused journalists that he was a “fucking fuckwit”, among other things.

AAP/AP/Sang Tan
James Murdoch with Rebekah Brooks in 2011.

Phone hacking scandal

James’s hopes for BSkyB were about to be washed away by a scandal, which did him and the company enormous damage. After the outstanding investigative efforts of Nick Davies, the Guardian published that Murdoch’s News of the World had hacked the phone of a kidnap victim Milly Dowler. This not only created immediate outrage but opened the door for many further revelations about the illegal methods and invasions of privacy by the tabloids to follow. Parliamentary hearings, court cases, and eventually the Leveson inquiry all put the company’s illegal and unethical practices into public view.

At first the arrogance of the Murdoch camp was undented. In private, chief editorial executive Rebekah Brooks said the story was going to end with Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger on his knees begging for mercy.

James, as News Corp’s senior executive in Britain when the scandal broke, found his own actions under scrutiny. His denials, prevarications and lack of remorse did not help the company’s cause. His appearances before the parliamentary committees were disastrous. At the end of his testimony, Labour member Tom Watson said

Mr Murdoch, you must be the first mafia boss in history who didn’t know he was running a criminal enterprise.

Climate change denial

James left London for New York and his promised promotion in the company. But his reputation was in tatters, even with other members of the family. His public persona at this time consisted of neo-liberal politics and corporate ruthlessness, with his actions untroubled by ethical considerations.

Yet, now, this corporate and family loyalist has resigned from his last official position with the company. James has long seen the urgency of combating global warming. As early as 2006, largely at his urging, Rupert also embraced the issue. Rupert soon retreated from the cause, but James’s commitment continued.

Rupert’s conversion had surprisingly little impact on the company’s journalism. Its upper editorial echelons contained a large number of climate denialists, and Rupert seems to have never made any effort to change their views.


Read more: Naming and shaming two young women shows the only 'enemies of the state' are the media


In addition, James’s wife, Kathryn, is by the rather special standards of the Murdoch family, a liberal and a progressive. She has been involved in several environmental organisations, and James and Kathryn have donated to several Democratic candidates, including most recently the presidential campaign of Joe Biden.

James made a rare public criticism of the company last Australian summer. He accused News Corp of promoting climate denialism during its coverage of the Australian bushfires.

Out of step

However the key events are probably in America. At the same time that James and Kathryn have been edging left, the Murdoch organisation has been moving ever further to the right. The commercial success and political impact of Fox News have doubtless shaped Rupert’s thinking and the whole company’s journalism has become more Foxified.

There has rarely if ever been an alliance of president and media company like that of Trump with Fox News. He is their chief publicist and they an uncritical avenue for his views, especially to his base. So far, it has probably worked out well for both.


Read more: From irreverence to irrelevance: the rise and fall of the bad-tempered tabloids


However, the dangers are acute, especially as Trump’s popularity wanes. Moreover, an erratic president such as Trump poses problems for the credibility of those who seek to embrace his every twist and turn.

This year’s pandemic, economic and racial problems have given a new urgency to these issues. Over the past six months, there have been more than double the fatalities Americans suffered in over 12 years in the Vietnam War. It is hard to remember any leadership failure approaching Trump’s catastrophe on COVID-19. Some early studies suggested Trump’s denialism, echoed by Fox, meant their viewers had more false beliefs about the pandemic than Americans who consumed mainstream media.

After Trump’s comments after a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, James donated $1 million to the Anti-Defamation League.

James has taken a principled stance, but it is also pragmatic. Since the sale of the bulk of Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox assets to Disney (of which James was chief executive), there is no future role for him in the corporation.

By also resigning from the News Corp Board, he will be freer to express his own views, and perhaps have the chance to watch from a distance as Trump is defeated and Fox heads into decline together in the coming months.

Rodney Tiffen, Emeritus Professor, Department of Government and International Relations, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Sep 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Seventy-five years ago, the prestige of the United States and the United Kingdom could not have been higher. They had defeated imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, and they did so in the name of freedom and democracy. True, their ally, Stalin’s Soviet Union, had different ideas about these fine ideals, and did most of the fighting against Hitler’s Wehrmacht. Still, the English-speaking victors shaped the post-war order in large parts of the world. The basic principles of this order had been laid down in the Atlantic Charter, drawn up in 1941 by Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt on a battleship off the coast of Newfoundland."
Sep 14th 2020
EXTRACT: "After Trump’s inauguration in January of 2017, millions demonstrated their disapproval. We can expect the same, no matter how this election turns out. With both sides framing this election in “end of the world” terms; with the president calling into question the legitimacy of the vote, even before it happens; and with the president warning his supporters that they may have to take up arms to defend him – we have a recipe for disaster that may occur in the days that follow this election. This may very well be the Armageddon election of our lifetime."
Sep 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "The Huawei case is a harbinger of a world in which national security, privacy, and economics will interact in complicated ways. Global governance and multilateralism will often fail, for both good and bad reasons. The best we can expect is a regulatory patchwork, based on clear ground rules that help empower countries to pursue their core national interests without exporting their problems to others. Either we design this patchwork ourselves, or we will end up, willy-nilly, with a messy, less efficient, and more dangerous version."
Sep 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "China’s footprint in global foreign direct investment (FDI) has increased notably since the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013. That served to bring Chinese overseas FDI closer to a level that one would expect, based on the country’s weight in the global economy. China accounted for about 12% of global cross-border mergers and acquisitions and 9% of announced greenfield FDI projects between 2013 and 2018. Chinese overseas FDI rose from $10 billion in 2005 (0.5% of Chinese GDP) to nearly $180 billion in 2017 (1.5% of GDP). Likewise, annual construction contracts awarded to Chinese companies increased from $10 billion in 2005 to more than $100 billion in 2017."
Sep 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Emergence and spread of the coronavirus COVID-19 have created and still creating health issues, economic challenges, political crises and social conflicts around the world. These challenges and conflicts lead the international community to re-evaluate global governance and international structures, which is based on the second world-war and post-cold war. The pandemic will emerge a new era of international society that will not be similar to the pre-Corona world."
Aug 28th 2020
EXTRACT: "Russia has changed, and has been changing, since its beginnings in ancient Muscovy to its current condition as Putin’s realm. Some general features appear in much of Russian history. Most of its rulers have been authoritarian—but so, too, were most of England’s, France’s, and Germany’s. Many of its political and intellectual elites have considered Russia a special civilization deserving a place in the sun—but just as many have not, wanting to transform Russia into a Western state with Western values. Many Russians have been enamored of their country, but even more have probably damned it for destroying them and their children. What, then, is Russia? It is, and has always been, many, oftentimes contradictory, things—sometimes coexisting, sometimes getting the upper hand, always shifting, always eluding simplistic analysis. But, and this needs to be emphasized, the same holds true for every other country in the world."
Aug 26th 2020
EXTRACTS: "Double dips – defined simply as a decline in quarterly real GDP following a temporary rebound – have occurred in eight of the 11 recessions since the end of World War II. .............Financial markets aren’t the least bit worried about a relapse, owing largely to unprecedented monetary easing, which has evoked the time-honored maxim: “don’t fight the Fed.” Added comfort comes from equally unprecedented fiscal relief aimed at mitigating the pandemic-related shock to businesses and households.......This could be wishful thinking."
Aug 26th 2020
EXTRACTS: "There is no question that the re-election of President Donald Trump would endanger both the US and the world. Moreover, there is ample reason to fear that a close election could drive the US into a deep, prolonged constitutional crisis, and perhaps into civil violence.........One can only hope that the election will produce a decisive winner both in the Electoral College and in the popular vote. Yet, even then, tallying the final result may take time, owing to the massive increase in mail-in voting that is expected. Every ballot that has a postmark of November 2 or 3 (depending on the state) will be considered valid, which means that the final result will not be known until after Election Day. During that window of uncertainty, either or both campaigns may try to claim victory based on the current vote count. In any case, there is no chance that Trump will wait graciously in the Oval Office for days or weeks to receive the final tally. In interviews, he has already issued vague statements suggesting that he will not leave the White House if he loses; indeed, he seems to be actively preparing for such a scenario. If he follows through, the world’s leading superpower will find itself facing a protracted – and perhaps intractable – constitutional crisis.
Aug 26th 2020
EXTRACT: "the European Union is a community of values as much as an economic and trade bloc. But the behavior of member states such as Poland and Hungary has called into question their commitment to liberal democracy. Above all, in the US, President Donald Trump is widely criticized, even by lifelong Republicans, for not respecting or understanding the US constitution and the separation of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Does Trump even believe in democracy? Does he want all Americans to vote in November, regardless of race or party affiliation, or only those who will support him? And will he accept the election result if it goes against him? "
Aug 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "The fundamental difference in values between the West and China will remain indefinitely, and it is here that the West must draw the line. Any concession that entails a sacrifice of fundamental principles, for example in cultural matters, must be rejected. If this values-based approach results in economic disadvantages, so be it. By the same token, the West should abandon the conceit that it can push, force, or cajole China to become a democracy wrought in its own image. "
Aug 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "China is light years ahead of most of the rest of the world in deploying digital payment technology. Alipay or WeChat Pay apps are all that is necessary to accomplish almost anything that requires a payment in China; the country is largely already making paper money obsolete. "
Aug 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "Seven hundred fifty billion euros is less than 5% of the stock of US government debt held by the public. It’s a drop in the bucket, in other words. And a drop does not a liquid market in safe assets make. Even if this really is Europe’s “Hamiltonian moment,” ramping up EU issuance by a factor of 20 will take decades. "
Aug 14th 2020
EXTRACT: "But the race is not over. In the 2016 election, prices moved the most in the two months just before the election. Trump trailed Hillary Clinton in prediction markets throughout the campaign and was seen as favourite only on election day – showing that the underdog can recover. So despite Trump’s poor position now, he might still regain some ground."
Aug 11th 2020
EXTRACT: "Last year, in the midst of the country-wide protests against corruption, I was honored by a Lebanese humanitarian organization. I began my remarks paraphrasing Kahlil Gibran’s poem “You have your Lebanon, I have my Lebanon.” Like Gibran, I love the Lebanese people, their poetry, art, song, and love of life. I love their generous and welcoming spirit. I also love what Lebanon has given to the world – especially its gifted people. And I love the sheer beauty of the country – its majestic snow-capped mountains and its pristine seascapes. And, like Gibran, I do not love Lebanon’s petty bickering politicians who lead because of an accident of birth. Nor can I embrace the country’s system of sectarian privilege and the corruption that is endemic to the political-economic regime that has squeezed Lebanon dry to the benefit of their chosen ones. And I reject the armed militias, whether they be Christian, Muslim, or secular that in the past and in the present continue to torment those who challenge their dominance. I told the audience that the Lebanon I loved was in the streets making their voices heard demanding fundamental reform – an end to sectarianism, corrupt feudal elites, and rule by force of arms."
Aug 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "It is time for the world’s governments and companies to wake up. Beijing’s reach is wide and deep. It is taking advantage of the West’s openness – and gaps and inconsistencies in our data protection protocols - to acquire information on all of us. The hacks on Anthem, Equifax, Marriott, and the US government are good examples of how they have already done so. American and Western companies need to take a hard look at the costs and benefits associated with operating in China and continuing to have Chinese partners. Those partners must comply with these Laws. American and Western companies that continue to operate with them may unwittingly well be aiding and abetting the Chinese government."
Aug 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "James Murdoch is not the most obvious candidate for editorial heroism. His route to resigning from the News Corp board because of “disagreements over certain editorial content” has been circuitous and colourful."
Aug 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "Say what you will about the slippery slope the US government has been on since Trump came to power, America has a rich history of promoting creative thought, running head-first into particularly uncomfortable subjects, and encouraging robust debate internally and among its allies and partners. Once Trump leaves the scene, America is sure to be perceived as having briefly lost its senses and will come charging back into the mainstream of global thought, debate, and engagement. China has entered the global arena crippled by its own ideology. Ultimately, the US is better equipped to lead the world. It knows that, and so does most of the rest of the world. Someone had better tell Beijing."
Jul 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "The Chinese government has for years argued that its ‘nine-dash line’ of sovereignty over the entire Sea is based on centuries of maritime history, and that China’s claim is air tight. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has even asserted that ample historical documents and literature demonstrate that China was “the first country to discover, name, develop and exercise continuous, effective jurisdiction over the South China Sea islands”. "
Jul 23rd 2020
EXTRACTS: "Like many, I have long been critical of Europe’s Economic and Monetary Union as a dysfunctional currency area. Notwithstanding a strong political commitment to European unification as the antidote to a century of war and devastating bloodshed, there was always a critical leg missing from the EMU stool: fiscal union. Not anymore. The historic agreement reached on July 21 on a €750 billion ($868 billion) European Union recovery fund, dubbed Next Generation EU, changes that.................Unlike the United States, which appears to be squandering the opportunities presented by the epic COVID-19 crisis, Europe has risen to the occasion – and not for the first time."
Jul 21st 2020
EXTRACT: "I cannot recommend strongly enough Anne Applebaum’s recent book Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends. Advancing her arguments with eloquence and personal testimony, Applebaum passionately decries the corrosion of liberal, open-society values in the last three decades. Her book is a practical reminder of what all democrats should have learned from reading Karl Popper’s magisterial The Open Society and Its Enemies, itself written in liberal democracy’s darkest hours during WWII."